The Book Thing of Baltimore has survived more perils in the past five years than the hero of any of the thrillers it gives away.
On Saturday, a line of book lovers that stretched down Vineyard Lane attested that not even the combined forces of a fire, a pandemic and the IRS is enough to overcome the beloved Baltimore institution.
“It was like being hit with a plague of locusts,” board president Don Karlowa admitted cheerfully. “But we’ve had a lot of offers of help, and we’re starting to think about the future.”
For the 21-year-old organization’s loyal customers, that future can’t come quickly enough.
“Is The Book Thing open?" one longtime fan asked urgently in an email to a Baltimore Sun reporter.
The answer is not exactly. But it’s not exactly closed, either.
The Book Thing’s board of directors and volunteers like to say that they’re "in a temporary hibernation.” For now, they are limited to monthly outdoor, socially distanced book giveaways. And though their shelves are bulging with more than 80,000 books, they also occasionally accept donations.
The organization has participated in a few special events: August featured an education-focused giveaway for teachers, while a September distribution targeted parents who are home schooling their children or supervising remote learning. On Oct. 29, The Book Thing will be among eight community organizations participating in Spooky Harvest Night, a costumed event intended to replace traditional Halloween activities.
“Since trick-or-treating is canceled this year, kids can pick up a book instead,” Karlowa said.
Through 2020, the organization will continue to give away books on one Saturday or Sunday of each month in the parking lot outside the warehouse, weather and the pandemic permitting.
Midway through Saturday’s five-hour event, The Book Thing had lightened its shelves of about 1,200 paperbacks, hardcovers and children’s books. Volunteer Bob Stimler, a 70-something retired engineer, helped oversee the line of customers browsing for books at 18 socially distanced stations.
“I love books, and I love the idea of giving them away,” said Stimler, who has been donating his time to the organization since 2006. “The Book Thing makes people happy. Earlier today, a little girl, maybe 5 years old, squealed when she found a book she’d been looking for.”
The Book Thing was founded in 1999 by Russell Wattenberg, a former bartender who turned his collecting hobby into a distribution system for getting books into the hands of impoverished schoolkids. His big idea took off, and in 2005, the operation moved into a warehouse at 3001 Vineyard Lane in the city’s Abell neighborhood.
The organization continued to thrive — until a fire broke out in the early morning of March 2, 2016, causing extensive damage to the building and closing the institution to the public for 19 months. The cause of the blaze has never been determined.
When The Book Thing reopened on Oct. 14, 2017, following an extensive rebuilding, its fans relaxed. But the organization’s troubles had only begun.
Wattenberg stepped down in the summer of 2019 for health reasons. Longtime volunteer Bonnie Hoppa took over last summer as executive director but left the organization seven months later, according to a Book Thing update and her LinkedIn profile.
Last August, The Book Thing’s board learned that its nonprofit status had been revoked by the Internal Revenue Service because the organization had failed to file a Form 990 for 2016, 2017 and 2018. (A Form 990 provides the documentation supporting a charity’s tax-exempt status.)
It was on oversight, but a costly one; the loss of the organization’s nonprofit status made it exponentially more difficult to raise money, Karlowa said.
The three-member board of directors reluctantly decided to close The Book Thing to the public as of Jan. 1, 2020, and to cease taking donations while volunteers worked to regain the organization’s nonprofit status.
Two months later — just as the board was planning to resume limited public hours — Gov. Larry Hogan closed cultural institutions statewide as COVID-19 descended on Maryland.
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“Covid changed everything,” Karlowa said, adding that during the most recent indoor event, volunteers gave away 20,000 books in eight hours. “Our volunteers can’t wait to get back inside.”
He’s confident that will happen, though he’s not certain when. By mid-August, the organization had filed its 990 forms through 2019 and submitted its application for reinstatement, a process that could take several months.
In the meantime, there are days like Saturday when The Book Thing is open and volunteers receive welcome reminders that what they do matters.
Jade Fahmawi and her 9-year-old daughter, Sumiyah, went from station to station, loading the books they selected into a purple wagon with double buckets. By the time they were through, the buckets were crammed to the brim.
“We’re taking 231 books,” Fahmawi told a volunteer as she checked out, adding, “I’m home schooling my four children.”
Sumiyah estimated that it would take her a month to get through all 231. She’s a big reader — all the kids in her family are. She clutched her most exciting find to her chest: “Granny Torrelli Makes Soup” by Sharon Creech.
“When I read, I imagine it all in my head,” Sumiyah said. “It’s like I go somewhere else. Books take me away from everything else around me.”